After all that fun in Ceredigion it’s back to tweaking the SE Wales route so we can get it waymarked for next summer. Walking to Penrhys as our annual pilgrimage we’ve tended to stick as closely as we can to our best guess at the medieval route – though we have in recent years taken to walking along the canal in Cwmbran rather than plodding up the old main road to Old Cwmbran. We also give in to temptation and walk to the summit of Twmbarlwm in fine weather. I don’t think medieval pilgrims would have bothered with this – the line of the medieval route is probably the modern byway that runs along the top of the forest, though there’s an even lower track through the forest and the farmyard at Pant-yr-yrfa.
I’ve been discussing these routes with Dave Standing, who has done some excellent work surveying grange boundaries on Mynydd Maen (as a backup to his main work on monastic water management systems – on which he will be publishing Any Day Soon!). He’s tracked grange boundaries through the forest and we’ve been discussing whether roads would go through granges. I think they would have gone through grange farmland but not through the inner enclosure round the farm yards and domestic buildings. There are actually examples of roads being diverted round grange precincts – the Ffordd y Gyfraith at Llangewydd north of Bridgend is a striking example, and the documented diversion of another major road round Dore’s Llanfair Cilgoed grange between Monmouth and Abergavenny.
Our discussion has been triggered by a debate over 4×4 access to the Mynydd Maen ridge. This one is always a problem. On the one hand people have the right to use roads for their legal purpose, and if a track is classified as a byway for all vehicles they have a right to go there. These tracks are also part of the historical evidence of the landscape and they often indicate where the old roads went. On the other hand, what 4×4 drivers really seem to like is ploughing along up steep climbs and through the mud, which is exciting but causes huge damage. There’s also the problem that some (not all) use the legal byway as an access route for some illegal off-roading along the ridge. There’s another RUPP (Road Used as Public Path) crossing the ridge but I think that’s been reclassified. The main problem is the very eroded track along the line of the ridge, which isn’t on any map.
Torfaen Council could reclassify the legal route as a restricted byway but it would be expensive as they’d be challenged. They could try to fence and gate it to stop illegal off-roading but that again would be expensive and might make difficulties for the commoners who need to move stock around. The commoners don’t like the off-roading as it damages the grazing and scares animals.
There’s also the problem of how you accommodate horse riders. Restricted byways are effectively bridleways, open to horses and pedal bicycles but not motorbikes (not sure about the legal status of those battery-assisted pedal bikes, though). 4x4s can’t get through horse gates but I’ve yet to see a gate that will allow a horse through but block a scrambler motorbike. I’ve been looking a bit more carefully at horse-riding routes because of Robin Hanbury Tenison’s idea to ride part of the Cistercian Way next year. Most of the paths I’ve been walking in Ceredigion are actually bridleways or restricted byways – there’s a wonderful Ceredigion on Horseback project (more on that at http://ceredigionbridlewaysgroup1.webs.com/home.htm ). Ceredigion doesn’t seem to have the same problem with scrambler bikes. I do remember a very imaginative proposal for a wheelchair-friendly trail round the Llyn Alwen reservoir in north Wales with gates you could open with radar keys (those are the keys you use to get into disabled toilets) but I can see that if we tried that round here you’d have old ladies being mugged for their radar keys!
Anyway, back to the footpaths off Twmbarlwm. As far as we can tell the medieval route ran down through what is now the Ty-Sign housing estate, along Mill Road (which ultimately gets its name from Llantarnam Abbey’s Maes-tir mill) and across the Ebbw at the actual Pont of Pontymister. Pontymister Farm, on the far side of the river, is on the site of Llantarnam’s Maes-tir Grange. All very interesting, but a long plod on main roads and through the houses. We’ll put it on the web site for purists but people walking mainly for pleasure would probably want more footpaths and less busy roads. Last year we trialled a new route over Mynydd Machen but that still left us with a long walk through the suburbs of Caerphilly. I’ve been discussing this with Caerphilly CBC and they would obviously like the route to go through the middle of Caerphilly (regeneration reasons) so I’ve been looking at ways to do this going via Machen and past the Van (see the blog at https://cistercianway.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/wits-forge-and-fireblast/ and links). The alternative is to use the Ridgeway and bypass Caerphilly to the south – a longer walk and would probably mean an extra day getting from Llantarnam to Penrhys, but it’s a lovely route.
Whichever one we go for, we need a route down Twmbarlwm and over the saddle south-east of Mynydd Machen to pick up the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway into Machen. Plenty of footpaths and bridleways marked on the map, so Cara and I set off with our sandwiches. We did some zigzagging up the Risca side of Mynydd Maen. The best route off Twmbarlwm is still the one we used last year – over the twmp, down to Pegwn-y-bwlch and down the lane that eventually becomes the Darren Road. When this crosses the canal, you can turn left (instead of right, which we did last year) and walk along the towpath for a couple of hundred yards then turn right down Temperance Hill.
This is a VERY steep road which becomes an even steeper metalled lane heading towards the spire of St Mary’s Church. When you reach the railway line turn left down steps and right on the road under the railway bridge. Go to the right of St Mary’s churchyard, turn left on the main road through Risca and right almost immediately along Exchange Road (named after the Exchange pub on the main road – still there, but for how much longer?). Cross the Ebbw by a new footbridge straight ahead of you. Turn left on a metalled footpath and walk under the dual carriageway.
Here the problems started. You can walk up the steps from the underpass to a minor road through an industrial area. Turn right past the factory then immediately left through the brickworks yard and up to where the road is blocked by large stones.
This becomes the path through the Dan-y-graig nature reserve. When the paths divide, bear right
and climb steadily to a stile at the top right corner of the reserve.
There has clearly been a path from here up towards Mynydd Machen but it’s heavily overgrown. It would be passable in winter with a stick to beat back the brambles – in summer (with shorts) it really isn’t. We went back to the bottom of the nature reserve and walked along the road past the cemetery. This has a lot of new housing (we were clearly in the posh end of Risca!) which has put paid to the bridleway but the road continues and becomes a track above the new part of the cemetery and along Mynydd Machen.
This track really goes too far back to the south-east but at least it eventually joins our best guess at the original pilgrimage route, the minor road from the old bridge through Lower Ochrwyth and up to Castle Farm. After Castle Farm it becomes a track – and in about 100 yards this was completely blocked by a huge fallen tree.
We got part way through this but it really wasn’t safe.
Back to the map. Back down the track towards the cemetery and over a stile. Footpath across fields. Blocked by barbed wire and a vehicle yard – and we could see that it wouldn’t bypass the blockage on the lane. Back down the fields. Up and down the hedges looking for gates and scrambling places. Eventually we worked our way back to the route from the nature reserve and managed to follow it up the slope. It’s heavily overgrown once you get to the mountain but just about passable (we did go into the fields at one point and had to scramble out over a barbed wire fence). The council has put nice new gates in but if the track isn’t walked it will disappear.
At this point I found myself wishing for some scrambler bikes to bash down the undergrowth!
We walked along the roughly metalled road to the saddle (this is our original pilgrimage route in reverse), and a little way up the very eroded track over Mynydd Machen itself. You don’t have to go up to the summit: a waymarking post takes the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway to the left and into the forest then downhill to Machen. There are tracks going to the right at the waymarking post and one of those might give us a better way up from Risca – that will need another day’s walking. The Raven Walk route is a possibility but that would take us all the way up river to the bridge by Crosskeys College that we used last year.
Watch this space. Again.